Saturday, December 28, 2013

Travelogue 539 – December 28
Living in The Dorp
Part Two

And so I'm clocking aesthetic avarice as she turns circles in the room, as she is blown through the door and into the next room, where she turns new circles. She wields her iPad. She dances a dance of Shiva and she captures all.

I am reminded of our Christmas Day excursion. Menna and I took the afternoon on Christmas to cycle around the quiet old town, watching folks on their strolls toward church or toward family, family strolls undertaken simply to enjoy the fine weather, our mutual good fortune this holy day. Menna and I have found a Turkish cafe, the only cafe open, and we have indulged in warmth and in coffee. Then we have cycled across the river to the Lantaren theatre for an afternoon film. What has seemed appropriate on the day that Jesus finds his way into form yet again is a film called 'Samsara'.

Samsara, the cycle of rebirth, the soul's fancy for illusion, is the putative theme of the film, and we must be treated with images of Tibet right away in order to be properly oriented in mente. The director renounces all subtlety, and it is good. We see message well before it arrives and are free to enjoy the stunning imagery, which was the correct labor for the man behind the camera, something that consumed him for five years and carried him from prospect to prospect around the world – much like my greedy camera bug at the museum.

On Versailles silver, the director treats us to panorama beauty and panorama ugly. He brings the faces of ancient mummified children, and be brings the stilled countenance of the deceased young man on his day of interment. He is lying in a coffin built in the shape of a revolver. Nobody laughs. We are treated to sandblasted and abandoned homes in some disaster zone. We are treated to Shanghai pauvre and to Dubai riche. We visit a vast disassembly plant, where animals are taken apart along conveyor belts.

Salvador Dali likes to trade in body parts. In the second room of his exhibit, there are sketches of all sorts of strange contortions of form. Humanity is a playground. So are the fundamentals of the household. In display cases we see a variety of divine experiments, including the lobster phone. There are experiments in photography, variations on Dali's theme of flying people, flying objects, and Dali himself arching his satyr's eyebrows.

I'm missing my shutter girl. She brings to us vitality, doesn't she, with her twitching youthfulness and stunning detachment? Her unconsciousness inspires a giddy disorientation, perfect for contemplation of the moderns. How to signify without her?

As we move into rooms deeper inside the museum, we move back in time. In the nineteenth century, we have discovered the painters of the Hague School, who had themselves re-discovered the Dutch Masters of the Golden Age, and then applied a Parisian filter. They had re-discovered the Dutch landscape, and its Impressionistic possibilities, and set about capturing images that we jaded come-afters find hard to see without shades of cliché: the polders, the canals cutting through their fields, the spotted cows, the windmills.

How do we learn to see again? Do we need the belabored intensity of Samsara, making things grand on super 70? Or do we take a lesson from shutter girl, that strange indirection, the glib mediation? The iPad collects, and we trust that the sorting systems inside the machine will assign meaning. The hard drive is ours to possess. It has a mapping mechanisms that make it like a museum. The hallways lined with art from the ages are like text to be scanned and then produced on demand. But what is the demand? Implicit is the faith in the cue. There will be a moment when the images will be produced, the validating moment, when shutter girl is a good and smart girl. Or maybe the moment never comes, and perhaps that is even better, a relief.

We return to the dorp after every journey, a place of significance. The photos will prove it. The goose – a pretty picture – stands ready to bite – a funny picture – beside the canal – a pretty picture – and we were there – group shot – in the dorp – proof in the picture – where people live – blurry picture – people who live in different houses – see here – and speak funny – see the signs. What a big, big, crazy world! It's all right here – scrolling, scrolling.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Travelogue 538 – December 27
Living in The Dorp
Part One

I have a few neighbors. They live in the little park beside the Schie River. This park is only a few meters of grass along the riverside. But it suffices for these two geese. They are a couple, I would say, though I can't tell which is the male, which is the female, or if it's that kind of couple. Either way, they are always together. One is brown and mottled, and one is white. They are like any other neighbor, hanging out, minding their own business, picking at the grass. They exhibit something like my attitude toward neighbors, hissing when they get too close, threatening to bite, waddling at them in attack position.

I pass them in the morning, coasting by on my bicycle. Before the sun has risen they are already awake and standing at the kerb, as though waiting for a bus. The park occupies a corner at the intersection of waterways, the Schie and one of the canals that connects it to the Maas River. It's nothing more than some grass and park benches facing the Schie.

A sculpture has been erected by the water, perhaps to honor the faithful goose couple. It's a kind of bench or love seat made of wrought iron curled and tangled like thick wire, painted cherry red, shaped into a canopy in the shape of a heart. There's a stand a few meters away, made of the same stuff, for couples to place their cameras, set it on auto, and capture themselves in the heart, with downtown spires in the background. Couples have attached padlocks to the sculpture.

The canal beside the park runs underneath the road to my flat. On the other side, it bypasses historic Delfshaven, leads past the windmill that is almost three hundred years old. There's a parallel canal some several hundred meters west that dissects the historic district. Old schooners anchor along the sides, sails stown away.

It's still a village, after all, still the dorp. The geese serve as a reminder. The village may have become urban, or been swallowed by the urgent necessities of sprawl, but still it is a village.

I've had occasion to watch tourist encounters with the geese. These are tourists to the neighborhood. They may be from abroad; they may be from across town. The geese charm them with their misanthropy. I hear laughter as I approach the group. I see the flash of cameras at work. Dad has pulled up a pant leg, and he's rubbing the spot where the goose has struck. He guffaws into the camera.

It's what we do when we visit the dorp. We take pictures. We can sense something different. Is it a sense that we are encountered with something to be preserved? Is that the reflex that reaches for the camera?

I'm wondering about that impulse to preserve. I'm watching her. She embodies it, reflex without thought. She makes a circuit of the small room. She has her iPad deployed, the cover folded back, the tablet held at the ready. At each station she stops to raise it and click. It matters little if there is anyone there first. She takes a moment's position right next to him or her and clicks. She keeps going. I'm taking a break from my original purpose just to watch her. She might be an exhibit herself.

Menna and I have finally made time to visit the Boijmans, the city's art museum. We have entered through the modern first, making our way through a series of small exhibit rooms devoted to twentieth-century art, two rooms for Surrealism because Dali is in town, a room for oddball pre-war realism, then rooms organized primarily by donated collection, bits of Kandinsky, bits of Mondrian, prints from Picasso, and assorted contemporaries.

Then there is herself, the flesh-and-blood tribute to the raw impulse to collect, mobile and restless, never stopping to admire but only to document on her deadly little tablet. I'm fascinated. I could imagine a chuckling and fey Salvador Dali writing this script. Though it would be so much better if some of the bystanders had no faces, or if the walls would melt.

There is nothing melting in this exhibit. The Dali paintings in this exhibit are as melancholy as I've seen the master. There are landscapes of his native, war-torn Spain, dry and desolate, with figures that emerge in mysterious and incomplete forms. Or there are uncomfortable groupings of distorted beings in midnight blue, a tearful or frightened face introduced as one more strange object, but also as extracted comment on it all.

Click! It is captured. And nothing cheers me more than the thought of its future home among unlit circuits, finding more peace there than ever in three dimensions, secure among thousands of images, not only of artistic peers from all ages, but among thousands more from budget beaches in Portugal or Croatia, where not this boyfriend but the one before, or maybe it was two before, passed out with sand in his eyebrows, remember that, and wasn't that hilarious when we painted his cheeks and his lips and then he came to and OMG he was so stoned and disoriented, we practically had to carry him, and God he was so stupid, and God he made me cry.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Travelogue 537 – December 21
The White Bear

I didn't expect the statue. I expected a lot from this town, but not the celebration of this illustrious figure so close to my heart, memorialized here larger than life, standing in costume period and pose heroic.

We have become confused among the winding, cobble-stone streets of this burg, and ended up in this pretty square, not one so unique in this town acknowledged as the prettiest in this part of Europe. The square occupies an unusually open space among the medieval alleys of the town, looking east over a stately canal running away toward its appointment with another canal. Mr. Van Eyck, with a nineteenth-century vigor, granted to him by his nineteenth-century sculptor, has turned his back toward the canal, and turned toward the life and bustle of the town, in particular toward the building that now houses an academy of fine art. Off his right shoulder, across the boulevard that runs alongside his square, is the medieval toll house, built in 1477.

We're standing in middle of the pretty square, and the rain is coming down steadily. It falls steadily but it may not strike steadily, as the raindrops are tossed around by gusts of chilly wind. Our umbrella doesn't serve us very well in winds like these. We stand regarding the Toll House, and next to it, the Poortersloge, or Burgher's Lodge.

The fifteenth century seems to have been the height of prosperity here in Bruges. The town had flourished for a few centuries already, the busy port and markets paying for these lovely buildings we enjoy, for the churches and the guild halls, and for the art that drew the commissions for names like Van Eyck.

The well-to-do citizens assembled in the Burgher's Lodge. The emblem of their jousting association still adorns the facade of the structure. The emblem portrays a bear holding the Bruges coat of arms. The bear is a symbol of Bruges. They say that the first count of Flanders, a congenial chap by the name of Baldwin with the Iron Arm, first visited the site of Bruges in the 800s, he encountered a brown bear. Of course, Lord Baldwin engaged with the bear, and after a long struggle, managed to kill it. This explains the small stone bear standing a niche in the facade of the lodge. This bear is white, and he's harmless. They dress him up for special occasions.

All this Menna and I contemplate as we stand quietly in the rain. 'So pretty,' we're thinking. Menna is shivering. My wife is cold. I have to take action. I urge her forward and onward.

It's surprisingly difficult to find quiet little places to sit in Belgian towns. We walk along the canal behind Mr. Van Eyck's back. Even in this emergency, I cannot help but admire the scenic streets, lined by quirky gables and the occasional stone trinket, erected by cheerful medieval landlords in a time of colorful caps and banners, a time when God still cherished us.

We finally come upon a pub. Inside, we hang dripping coats on the backs of chairs. We shiver at the wooden table as a waiter brings us strong Belgian beer, sweet-tasting and heady, shining the color of summer fields of grain, shining even when there is no sun. I am rubbing the tips of Menna's fingers.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Travelogue 536 – December 14
Do Not Disturb My Circles

And what would old Archimedes have thought, arriving from Syracuse, perhaps on a freighter shaped like a huge bathtub, a kind of iron village set afloat, a ship that has steered its mass into the mouth of the Maas River? What words, what cry would suffice for this discovery?

The shores of the river open into port after port, the length of the waterway lined with the mechanics of freight. Etched into the white northern sky are the sober, metallic outlines of machine after machine, cranes, cranks, chains, and the frames of giant swings. It's a vast outdoor physics lab.

'The simple machine changes the direction of a force ... increasing effect …,' he mutters, standing at the helm, as though he were standing before his students.

The Greeks identified six simple machines. The Renaissance scholars, keen students, multiplied these into the hundreds, combining them into compound machines, into thousands of applications. Their Protestant great-grandchildren turned these into profit, into whole cities of steel.

Would this river cruise be a delight for old Archimedes, or would it be an assault of insight, deadly to consciousness, a cacophony of thought, two thousand years in a tidal rush? We are a busy species, always building. There is a lot to see at the end of 2013.

In this town of cranks and gears and pulleys, this modernist enclave of commerce as industry, jewel in the crown of a country of problem-solvers, I indulge in a jog beside the River Maas, the color of steel. It's a day one is forced call sunny at this latitude, though in fact the sun in its ten degrees of glory only lights the dome of the sky with a tinny silver sheen.

I've discovered an esplanade riverside hidden from the road, a spread of concrete located behind a series of housing projects. This bit of river extends west from my usual runs, pushing toward the watery border between the wedge of little Delfshaven and Schiedam.

I like this stretch of unexceptional asphalt, set with squares of dispirited grass, set with odd sculptures looking like big paper hats, but folded in iron, standing on legs like hobby horses. They are painted in colours that just aspire to the scale of cheerful, but achieve only curiosity. I like this place for its air of abandonment. I like it for the prospect of the western ports of the city, miles of industrial age landscape, horizon of machinery changing force, water resuming and resuming again its nature, its peace, among the churning commerce.

I've been marking our progress toward the solstice, marking with interest the inching forward of frosts and shadow. We seem to have been granted a yuletide break from the incessant rains, a time to emerge into the dusk and contemplate. I'm thinking about poor Archimedes, wandering the Rhine delta, looking for that final proof he was working on before the Roman soldier cut him down, harmless old man playing with circles. His ghost is now thinking of other matters, questioning himself in the face of what the industrial age hath wrought. He is captured by wonder, which is no less than what one hopes for for old ghosts.

I turn at the furthest point, where another small haven, or harbor, interrupts the path, and I jog back the way I have come. I discover that a barge has parked' beside the esplanade. One man stands on land while two others stand on the deck of the barge, chatting with him, operating the shipboard crane, which is set just at the bow. If I were Archimedes I might wonder how a boat supports great amounts of weight not from the center, but at the extremity of the bow. About ten meters above the man onshore hangs suspended his car. The man's shift on the barge is over. It's time to go home. He'll take his auto with him.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Travelogue 535 – December 7

So we engage in the struggle against darkness. It's December. We have slid northward, away from light, and under a polar cap of dense cloud. We know we must push forward, as into a headwind, heads down and hands protected. The mornings are dark until eight, the light coming in a slow and diffuse way difficult to describe as dawn. It takes so long to become day, and one can't be quite sure, under cover of mist, when the ambient illumination has achieved full daylight.

Yesterday we saw our first snow, or something like it. Something, in fact, icy. What falls are small white hailstones. They start coming down while I'm out on a run. They bounce off the sidewalk, and they roll in the cold wind. They sting against my cheek.

The winds have been formidable. Menna walks her bicycle home from the Metro station. I return home from my run with numb fingers. Because the still-air temps are still above freezing, I haven't started wearing the black tights yet. Instead, I come home with thighs and knees bright red and raw.

Yesterday we hear that Mandela has died. The news is a sign bittersweet: a life lived well, lived in principle and with virtue; and an era passing, for better or worse. The times of father and son in only my family have witnessed since the ravages of the Depression genocide in Europe and apartheid in Africa. Hitler made his rage and hatred into an international crisis. Mandela made his fight an international matter of conscience.

The esteemed Paul Theroux writes in a recent article that our work in Africa is more or less ineffectual, mere 'telescopic philanthropy', a phrase he borrows from Charles Dickens. What's more it has all been done before. Of course, I too am a huge fan of the author of Ecclesiastes, who wrote 'there is nothing new under the sun' a few millennia before Mr. Theroux felt the sun of Malawi on his shoulders. Like Solomon, Mr. Theroux has been there, and so why should anyone else?

It's popular to debunk NGO work these days, and God knows it deserves a bit of the old debunk, but every generation does the best it can. Shall we feel foolish now because we're helping people in a faraway place? I find myself peering again into the shadowed minds of the secret paternalists of our time who say that one type of person cannot know how to, or have the right to, help another type (word from wise, developed-world sage). It's an odd viewpoint, that geographical distance and culture invalidate the fundamental human instinct to help.

And our embarrassment should be based on logic like this: people are poorer than ever in Africa; therefore, aid work has failed. As a show of thoroughness, let's support with one example, from the thousands of agencies working across the continent: Jeffrey Sachs. Yes, that is a case that cuts right to the heart of my work. I feel exposed.

After declaring general failure, Mr. Theroux offers a few radical tips, should we care to continue with our futile work: 'Seek input from locals. Demand responsible management.' Here is the soul of innovation. Quite right that he should take to the soap box with gems like this. We dast not shade a light like that.

But this is the standard of critique these days, laying down the fifth ace: your work is immoral, but I know how to do it better. But wasn't it immoral? No, not if you're innovative. Ah, like demanding responsible management. That is deep innovation. I've got another one for you: look both ways before crossing the street. Now you've got it. But one question: how innovative is poverty? We have never 'won' against poverty. Ergo, we have 'failed'. The work is failing, and must stop. Astounding.

No, here's the news today: we're not going to solve poverty. We're human and we're going to try. We go where we feel we can make a difference. Someone will always know better, and will say so. We get up every morning and we try harder.

Today's news, the day after the day. It's winter. We will buckle down, and we will go out the door when it's time to work, even though the sun doesn't seem to have stirred. These are the times during the year when the primeval within us wonders whether God has forsaken us. We shiver to consider what is asked of us, even if it is only logging a few miles in the ice of a long night. We still do it.